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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

The Italian Connection, Part I

(ed.note: At various points over the last two years, I've discussed here at tpm reporting I've done on the origins of the Niger forgeries. I've never put all the reporting in one place; and until now there was still a good bit of information I wasn't at liberty to report. This is the first of a series of installments I'm going to publish here at TPM in which I will lay out the story as I understand it based on my own reporting and research.)

On March 7th, 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the UN Security Council that documents purporting to show that Iraq had purchased uranium ore from Niger were in fact forgeries. The documents had been provided to the IAEA by the United States. "Based on thorough analysis," said ElBaradei, "the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents - which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger - are in fact not authentic."

As the world would soon learn, the documents had first emerged in Rome in October 2002 when an unnamed ‘security consultant’ had tried to sell them to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist working for the Italian magazine Panorama. From there, the documents made their way to the American Embassy in Rome and finally back to Washington. In early 2003, the IAEA had demanded that the US provide whatever evidence it had to support its claims that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. And in response the US handed over copies of the documents.

Ever since ElBaradei’s revelation, the story had been one that interested me greatly, as it did many others. And my interest only grew that summer when renewed controversy erupted over the claims retired Ambassador Joe Wilson made about his fact-finding trip to Niger. But the following winter, two streams of information opened up to me which suggested that the forgeries story went well beyond this unnamed Italian ‘security consultant’ and that the US government appeared less than interested in discovering the identities of either the forgers or those who had used the documents to deceive the American people.

One stream of information came from sources within the US government itself.

According to US government sources I spoke to in the course of my reporting, there was far more tying the forgeries to Italy than the mere fact that they had first emerged in Rome in October 2002. Almost a year earlier, US suspicions about an illicit uranium trade between Iraq and Niger had begun with intelligence reports from Italy. Soon after the September 11th attacks, the Italian military intelligence agency SISMI sent its first report to the US government including details of an alleged Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of lightly-processed uranium ore from Niger.

Details of this and a subsequent SISMI report formed the basis of a reference to alleged Iraq-Niger uranium sales which was included in a CIA briefing Vice President Cheney received in early 2002. It was that briefing that prompted Cheney's request for more information on the Iraq-Niger sale. And that request led, in turn, to the CIA's decision to dispatch Joe Wilson on his trip to Niger. The Italian reports had set the whole process in motion.

But there was another key detail: The reports out of Italy were not a separate source of intelligence from the forgeries. They were the forgeries. To be precise, the intelligence reports from Italy were actually text transcriptions and summaries of the forged documents. The reports from Italy and the forgeries were one and the same. The distinction is rather like saying you haven't seen the PDF of a letter only the text from the letter that someone copied down from the PDF. The fact that the Italian reports came from as-yet-to-be-revealed forgeries of course could not be known at the time. That only became clear to intelligence officials much later when these post-9/11 Italian reports and the forgeries were compared. But looking back in retrospect, it was clear that the whole Niger uranium canard seemed to lead back to those forgeries.

Just what that meant for Italy's role wasn’t clear. Indeed, it still isn’t entirely clear. What was quite clear, however, was that the Italian government would be a key place to start to get to the bottom of the forgeries’ mystery.

And there was more.

I also learned of the existence of a Joint State Department-CIA Inspectors General report on the “16 words” and the Niger forgeries which was produced in the fall of 2003. Much of the report detailed information later revealed in the Senate intelligence committee report. But there were other briefly noted but intriguing details.

For instance, the State-CIA IG report briefly noted a murky story about contacts between SISMI and the CIA in the summer of 2002. That summer SISMI had approached the CIA about an operation they intended to run against the Station Chief of Iraqi intelligence in Rome. The plan was to send disinformation about the Iraqi Station Chief back to Baghdad via a third country. And the subject of the disinformation was to be trade between Iraq and Niger. (The Americans did not object but declined to participate.)

That was certainly interesting.

Later, from other US government sources, I learned another detail. When the forgeries arrived at the US Embassy in Rome in October 2002, the first reaction of the CIA Station chief was to wonder whether this wasn’t the same story the Italians had suggested using against the Iraqi only months before.

As you can see, quite a lot of information seemed to suggest that the Italian government played a large role in the story of the Niger forgeries, even if it might be an innocent or unwitting one. Yet neither the CIA nor the FBI, a knowledgeable source told me, seemed intent on getting to the bottom of what had happened.

In addition to these clues, there was one more piece of information. And here is where the two streams of information I noted above flowed together. A US government source pointed me toward a series of suspicious points of overlap between the forgeries story and a series of unauthorized meetings between Italian intelligence figures, two Pentagon employees working under Doug Feith, other Americans and the disgraced Iran-Contra figure Manucher Ghorbanifar. These meetings were the subject of an article ("Iran-Contra II?") I published with Laura Rozen and Paul Glastris in the Washington Monthly in early September 2004. Around the same time, another source -- this one outside the US government – told me a murky series of details about the meetings which purported to connect them to the emergence of the forgeries in Rome in October 2002.

These were the details -- some quite specific and solidly-sourced, others murky but intriguing -- that led me to start reporting on the Niger forgeries in earnest in early 2004. In the second installment, how the Washington Monthly, Laura Rozen, and finally 60 Minutes came into the picture, and new information pointing toward the role of Italian intelligence.

From the current version of the Gellman article in today's Washington Post ...

On July 12, the day Cheney and Libby flew together from Norfolk, Libby talked to Miller and Cooper. That same day, another administration official who has not been identified publicly returned a call from Walter Pincus of The Post. He "veered off the precise matter we were discussing" and said Wilson's trip was a boondoggle set up by Wilson's wife, Pincus has written in Nieman Reports.


From the original version now saved in the Nexis database...

On July 12, the day Cheney and Libby flew together from Norfolk, the vice president instructed his aide to alert reporters of an attack launched that morning on Wilson's credibility by Fleischer, according to a well-placed source.

Libby talked to Miller and Cooper. That same day, another administration official who has not been identified publicly returned a call from Walter Pincus of The Post. He "veered off the precise matter we were discussing" and told him that Wilson's trip was a "boondoggle" set up by Plame, Pincus has written in Nieman Reports.


More soon.

At the Washington Post online yesterday, Jeff Morley raised the possibility that last year's Dan Rather/National Guard papers scandal may have prevented CBS's 60 Minutes from airing a story on the origins of the Niger forgeries. Referring to Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who was offered the forgeries in October 2002, Morley writes ...

Burba "has also been interviewed by the CBS investigative show '60 Minutes ' for a piece on the documents that was pulled in the wake of the problems that brought down Dan Rather," according to the LAT.

But after suffering a major black eye last year for relying on forged documents for a story about President Bush's National Guard service, CBS would risk controversy if it aired a story about how the Bush administration allegedly relied on doctored intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. CBS's coverage would seem to be handcuffed, at least temporarily, by Rather's 2004 election mistake.


This account is incomplete and substantially incorrect. But that's no criticism of Morley because the actual story has never been publicly aired.

Allow me to explain.

By the late spring of 2004, 60 Minutes had interviewed Burba, the Italian journalist, Rocco Martino, the 'security consultant' who had attempted to sell her the documents in October 2002, and the SISMI asset (the female Italian national) who works in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The interviews implicated Antonio Nucera, a colonel from the Italian intelligence service SISMI, as the immediate source of the documents. After an initial conversation, Nucera himself refused all contact with the reporters working on the story.

After this, a string of problems delayed the airing of the story.

First, given the nature of the story, CBS, understandably, felt it was necessary to have an administration official interviewed to provide the administration's side of the story. Yet after initial arrangements had been made to interview mid-range administration officials for the story, they later declined to be interviewed. Eventually, it became clear that no Bush administration officials would agree to be interviewed for the story.

That delayed the story. But eventually, Sen. Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the senate select committee on intelligence, himself agreed to provide an interview. His only condition was that he would only speak on camera after the senate intelligence committee issued its report that summer.

That necessitated a further delay. But it also appeared to clear the way for the airing of the story mid-summer. The story was held until the senate report was released.

However, after the senate intel report appeared in early July, Roberts first equivocated and then finally withdrew his promise to provide an interview for the story.

Again, the story was held up because there was no administration official or Republican congressional figure who agreed to be interviewed. And that is where the matter stood late in the summer of 2004.

Over the next two months, in response to the interviews noted above and other reporting implicating SISMI, a series of leaks began to emerge out of SISMI that were picked up in sympathetic Italian dailies as well as the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. In response to these reports and, for the first time, the publication of his name, Martino again travelled to the United States for another round of interviews.

Eventually, a version of the Niger story was produced. But it had the interviews with Martino and the SISMI asset who works in the Nigerien embassy removed. While the segment provided a compelling narrative of the story of the infamous "sixteen words", it contained little or no information that had not already been reported in major newspaper coverage of the story. The reporting implicating the Italian government and SISMI were set aside for a possible follow-up report.

The produced segment was scheduled to be aired on Wednesday, September 8th, 2004. Several days before the airing, however, the possibility was raised that the Niger story would be bumped in favor of Dan Rather's segment on President Bush and the National Guard. As late as the day of airing itself, a final decision had yet to be made on which segment would run.

Once the scandal over Guard memos erupted, CBS decided that it could not run a story about forged Niger memos while it was embroiled in a scandal about forged National Guard memos. Later, CBS announced it would not run the story because it was too soon before the November election. After the election was over, no plans were made to run the piece, either in the expurgated or complete form.

Italian PM Berlusconi distances in advance of trip to Washington on Monday.

"I tried many times to convince the American president not to go to war ... I tried to find other avenues and other solutions, even through an activity with the African leader (Libya's Colonel Muammar) Gaddafi. But we didn't succeed and there was the military operation."

Yesterday we noted items #22 and #23 on page 8 of the Libby indictment, which read ...

22. On or about July 12, 2003, LIBBY flew with the Vice President and others to and from Norfolk, Virginia, on Air Force Two. On his return trip, LIBBY discused with other officials aboard the plane what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries, including questions from Time reporter Matthew Cooper.

23. On or about July 12, 2003, in the afternoon, LIBBY spoke by telephone to Cooper, who asked whether LIBBY had heard that Wilson's wife was involved in sending Wilson on the trip to Niger. LIBBY confirmed to Cooper, without elaboration or qualification, that he had heard this information too.

24. On or about July 12, 2003, in the late afternoon, LIBBY spoke by telephone with Judith Miller of the New York Times and discussed Wilson's wife, and that she worked at the CIA.


Here I've added item #24, for reasons which will become evident shortly. But, as I wrote yesterday, to my reading, two points stand out about items #22 and #23. First, before confirming Plame's identity as a CIA employee to Matt Cooper, Libby appears to have discussed whether or how to discuss her identity with other members of the vice president's staff, quite possibly with the vice president himself. Second, item #22 seems supererogatory. It has no clear relevance to the charges levied against Libby. It speaks to the complicity of others in the vice president's office.

What you really want, though, is to clear up that ambiguity about Cheney. Was he in on that strategy session about how Libby should deal with Cooper's call or kickin' back somewhere else on the plane?

TPM Reader JL points to a month old New York Times article (Johnston and Stevenson, Oct. 1st) which points very, very strongly to the conclusion that he did.

The article reports on Judith Miller's release from jail and subsequent grand jury testimony.

A short way into the article there is this passage (emphasis added) ...

A lawyer who knows Mr. Libby's account said the administration efforts to limit the damage from Mr. Wilson's criticism extended as high as Mr. Cheney. This lawyer and others who spoke about the case asked that they not be identified because of grand jury secrecy rules.

On July 12, 2003, four days after his initial conversation with Ms. Miller, Mr. Libby consulted with Mr. Cheney about how to handle inquiries from journalists about the vice president's role in sending Mr. Wilson to Africa in early 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq was trying acquire nuclear material there for its weapons program, the person said.

In that account, Mr. Cheney told Mr. Libby to direct reporters to a statement released the previous day by George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence. His statement said Mr. Wilson had been sent on the mission by C.I.A. counter-proliferation officers "on their own initiative."


That passage leaves a bit of ambiguity about whether this might be a different conversation than the one on the plane. This one further down into the article doesn't (emphasis added) ...

Mr. Libby has said he spoke with Mr. Cheney on July 12, six days after Mr. Wilson's article.

Mr. Libby said he told Mr. Cheney that reporters had been pressing the vice president's office for more details about who sent Mr. Wilson to Africa. The two men spoke when Mr. Cheney was on a trip to Norfolk, Va., for the commissioning of the carrier Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Libby said Mr. Cheney directed him to refer reporters to Mr. Tenet's statement, which said that the C.I.A. had been behind Mr. Wilson's selection for the trip.


That's pretty clear, isn't it?

Notwithstanding Libby's implausible claim that the vice president told him to refer reporters to Tenet's statement, Cheney did participate in that conversation. And Fitzgerald knows it. According to the Times, Libby testified to the fact himself.

Anyone have any insight on this graf from 'Libby Charged' article in today's Times?

Mr. Fitzgerald was spotted Friday morning outside the office of James Sharp, Mr. Bush's personal lawyer. Mr. Bush was interviewed about the case by Mr. Fitzgerald last year. It is not known what discussions, if any, were taking place between the prosecutor and Mr. Sharp. Mr. Sharp did not return a phone call, and Mr. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to comment.


Remember, in his capacity as president, Mr. Bush's lawyer is Harriet Miers, the White House Counsel. This is his personal lawyer. In fact, I believe Sharp was hired particularly for this case.

Thoughts?

A year later, the real Niger scandal is beginning to surface. Knight-Ridder's Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel report on the central role of the Italian intelligence agency SISMI in distributing the forged documents ...

Italy's military intelligence agency, SISMI, and people close to it, repeatedly tried to shop the bogus Niger uranium story to governments in France, Britain and the United States. That created the illusion that multiple sources were confirming the story.

...

Sept. 9 - With the White House's public campaign against Iraq in full swing, Nicolo Pollari, head of SISMI, met with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley at the White House. Hadley later took the blame for including the false Niger allegation in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech.

National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said Thursday that the meeting was a 15-minute courtesy call and that no one could recollect talk about yellowcake.


Note the similarity there to other instances of phony WMD intelligence which were planted with various intelligence agencies in order to create the appearance of multiple and overlapping sources of confirmation.

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